"Wondowlowski" cleans up in the Gold Cup's opening matches
Two games and five goals after the U.S. opened their quest for a fifth Gold Cup, Chris Wondolowski is suddenly doinating U.S. Men's National Team discussion, perhaps with more relevance than ever before. Whereas last year's MLS Most Valuable Player has always had a cohort of proponents who believed his league play would, given enough time, translate internationally, the San Jose forward had only scored once in 10 caps before Tuesday night. After his hat trick against Belize in the U.S.'s 6-1 win and two more against Cuba (4-1), "Wondo's" rate is now one in two. Is that enough to warrant a role backing up Jozy Altidore?
Even with Wondolowski's explosion, those proclamations would be premature, mostly because of the level of opposition the U.S. played in their first two matches. While climbing to the top of Group C, Jurgen Klinsmann's side have faced competition decidedly below the MLS-level against which Wondolowski normally excels. Admire him for his goal surge, as we all should, but it's unclear performances against Belize and Cuba tell us anything about how he'll do against Costa Rica or in the knockout round.
The more pertinent evaluations focus on players' struggles. After all, if you can't perform against Belize or Cuba, there's little reason to believe you can handle a step up. As Michael Parkhurst struggled to contribute (against Belize), Brek Shea continuously gave the ball away (Cuba), and Edgar Castillo was beaten at left back (Cuba), Klinsmann got an idea of who might struggle in the future. And when Castillo's efforts combined with Oguchi Onyewu's mistake to give Cuba a lead, it was hard to imagine either starting in the tournament's final rounds.
But then there was Castillo's second half against Cuba, when the insertion of Jose Torres in left midfield for Shea freed up the flank, allowing him to be one of the U.S.'s best players. Jose Corona has consistently provided good service. Michael Orozco has been steady (if untested) in central defense, while Kyle Beckerman overshadowed a pedestrian performance in Portland with an influential one in Salt Lake. Beyond "Wondowlowski" (as his kit in Portland branded him), players are making their claims.
Those claims are for playing time in the semifinal and final, matches where the U.S. competition will play closer to a World Cup Qualifying-level. Wondolowski, Corona, and Orozco moved may have locked down roles in those games – matches which could vault them into real consideration for The Hex's final squads. RF
Portland-LA Galaxy worth a moment of pause
Real Salt Lake's 3-0 win at FC Dallas was more than a consolidation of their standing atop the Western Conference. It was the first time the franchise had won in Texas, Jason Kreis's team having carried a 0-18-3 record into Saturday's game. Goals by Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, and Olmes Garcia flung RSL's lonestar monkey off their back, leaving the team four points clear in the race for the Supporters' Shield.
But the weekend's big headline came from Portland, where Caleb Porter's upstart Timbers not only recorded a validating victory over the visiting Galaxy but helped put on one of the most memorable shows of the Major League Soccer season. In front of 20,674 at JELD-WEN Field (the Timbers have never failed to sell out an MLS game), Portland and Los Angeles each completed over 400 passes, the high octane affair culminating with Andrew Jean-Baptiste's 94th minute header, giving the Timbers a 2-1 win:
In many ways, the match embodied how far Major League Soccer's come. Portland, who along with Seattle have the fervent fan bases MLS hopes to cultivate in the wake of their Cascadia expansion, produced what was likely the loudest moment of the season, a reaction captured by the type of committed national television outlet (NBC Sports) that hasn't always been a league partner. Though Bruce Arena is known as the type of pragmatist that's historically defined the league's heterogeneous tactics, he let his team go toe-to-toe with Caleb Porter's ambitious possession-driven scheme, producing a style and quality of game that the league would like to see more of. Combine the Galaxy's stature and the teams' place in the standings (Portland now second in the West; LA fourth), Saturday may have been one of the best shows in Major League Soccer history.
It's one of the rarely mentioned benefits of following Major League Soccer: Being in on the ground floor of something that's undoubtedly maturing. Follow it ardently, and you'll occasionally get a moment that compels you to stop and reflect. Sometimes those moments are a key signing (David Beckham) or a standout crowd (Seattle's summer Cascadia Cup matches), but sometimes, that moment is the game itself. On Saturday, when Portland claimed one of their most important wins in franchise history, the Timbers and Galaxy forced us to pause and consider how far the league's come. RF
The rain falls on winners and losers alike
Football is an outdoor sport, exposed to the elements both good and bad. That means players are expected to execute a game plan in adverse weather conditions; a bit of water is no excuse for poor play. Even so, as most seasoned football veterans will tell you, the rain giveth and rain taketh away.
Chivas USA learned that lesson the hard way in their rain-soaked, wind-lashed 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Friday night. It wasn't clear from the outset whether the endless downpour, which didn't make for great TV (water soaked lenses) or indeed great football (ball failed to move on one side of the pitch in early going), would favour one side over another.
Chivas coach José Luis Real clearly favoured a quick, short-passing game, but players like Edgar Mejia and Gabriel Farfan were continually muscled out of possession in the middle of the park. There were very few bright spots in the Chivas 'attack,' not least Jose Correa, although he got his one chance and took it early on. It took a while for Philly to get their rhythm. The rain proved a major challenge, particularly in the fourteenth minute when Union centreback Amobi Okugo slipped and fell to the right of his goal, allowing Jorge Villafaña to waltz past and pass to an open Correa who slotted home the early goal for the visitors.
Almost immediately after however, the relative quality of the two sides was evident even in the deluge, and Philadelphia poured on pressure through Danny Cruz and Conor Casey. A Philadelphia equalizer seemed inevitable, and soon after the restart the imposing Casey headed in a Sebastian Le Toux cross following a short corner (the goal was credited to Brian Carroll who had the fortune to get slightly in the way of the ball on its way to the back of the net).
Still, Chivas had reason to believe they could preserve a draw. Keeper Dan Kennedy looked decent between the posts despite the shots conceded to the home side in the box, and Chivas had already accrued three straight tie games.
The Goats indeed held out all the way to the 79th minute when another slip, or fortuitous tackle maybe, in the River end played a crucial role in the outcome. Edgar Mejia fell down and bobbled the ball seemingly unintentionally toward his keeper Kennedy. Referee Jorge Gonzalez judged it a pack-pass and awarded the Union an indirect free kick in the box. It was a bad call, though Josue Soto didn't help his team by picking up a second yellow for bumping the ref in the aftermath.
The rest was elementary. Michael Farfan smashed home a difficult teed up shot from the resulting indirect free kick in the box, and Conor Casey added a third in the 89th minute. The 10-man Chivas may want to blame it on the rain, but the reality is without it, they wouldn't have got a whiff of goal in the first place. RW
Montreal miss a chance to prove a point
What's the difference between a great team going through a temporary slump, and a mediocre team regressing to its true level of talent after a "lucky" streak? If you know the answer, you should consider taking up a career in sports gambling. You might also tell the Montreal Impact whether they have reason to have faith after a bad loss, and the New York Red Bulls whether they shouldn't get too excited after an emphatic win.
In the lead-up to the NYRB's game against the Impact in Red Bull Arena on Saturday night, there was a temptation to believe the result would either "prove" the Impact were the real deal as Eastern Conference leaders, or that New York were their natural replacements at the top.
Impact head coach Marco Schällibaum's side had come off a loss to Colorado and two draws against the abject Toronto FC and Chivas USA. Though on 31 points and in first place, a turnaround was needed. New York meanwhile were in third with 28 points, but had been struggling of late with a 1-1-3 record in their last five. Henry for his part hadn't scored in his last four matches. If Montreal was going to put the recent past behind them in a serious, top-of-the-table away fixture, this was the moment. Ditto for New York.
Except it all came apart for the visitors in the first ten minutes of play. Praise should be given to Red Bull Eric Alexander for his enterprising, defender-dropping run into the penalty area, and his low finish in the eighth minute, but the Impact defense flattered to deceive. Hassoun Camara was put under physical pressure from the get-go and didn't rise to the challenge. Jeb Brovsky gave his opponents ample space, the normally effective Matteo Ferrari was often caught out of position, and Alessandro Nesta looked...well...tired.
Montreal's midfield and attack didn't fare much better. Andres Romero was deemed so ineffective that Schällibaum took him off in the 36th minute for Blake Smith, in a tactical substitution. Marco di Vaio and Daniele Paponi didn't match up well in the first half, despite the good work of Justin Mapp outside.
Meanwhile the Red Bulls were so adept at taking advantage of Montreal's lax defense it came as little surprise when they doubled their tally in the 16th minute. Thierry Henry had all the time and space in the world to convert a pinpoint cross from Fabian Espindola. From then on it was the Red Bulls show, with Jonathan Steele, Tim Cahill, Henry and Esindola running riot through the back four to claim a 4-0 victory.
So then, what does it all mean? Are the Red Bulls back where they belong? Have the Impact finally been found out? It's impossible to tell from a single match, but it's evident that Montreal's defense needs some serious work, and that New York will almost regularly face tougher back lines than Montreal's on Saturday. The rest is just fun, if pointless, speculation. RW
Toronto experience more of the wrong sort of excitement
These are exciting times for Toronto FC, although for the wrong reasons. A mere few hours before kickoff, word spread on Twitter that Darren O'Dea, the team's high-priced (many said overpriced) central defender and captain, was "transferring" out of the club and would not be joining his team against Kansas City at Sporting Park. While it wasn't clear if this was his choice, those privy to the news ahead of time (Kevin Payne likes to work the media) heavily intimated Payne intended to take O'Dea's considerable salary off the books and free up "cap space."
It makes sense in context after rumors surfaced in respectable papers a few weeks ago that Uruguayan international Diego Forlan would be a Toronto FC player any day now. In the meantime the club cast off Luis Silva, a talented attacking mid, to DC United, and 33 year old Danny Califf announced his retirement. Many TFC fans believe this complicated allocation alchemy will pave the way for a group of as-yet mostly unnamed international stars who will finally turn the club's fortunes around.
Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City lives in the real world where the season starts in March and goes through to the end of October. The main concern of head coach Peter Vermes was merely to keep their impressive midfield engine humming; prior to Saturday's game SKC had gone four matches undefeated. They had few problems stretching that streak to five with a comprehensive 3-0 victory Toronto FC, and it's worth looking at the players who contributed.
Kei Kamara, who didn't have a stellar game by his standards but who was still dangerous, has been with Sporting Kansas since 2009, as has the incisive Graham Zusi. Soony Saad, who scored a lovely brace - his first goals in nearly two years and yet incredibly still there - and who was easily man of the match, joined in 2011. One of Sporting's major additions to the current squad, and currently their only DP, is Claudio Bieler, who also scored against Toronto on Saturday. The team hummed, moving with the mutual awareness that playing together as a side for years can bring.
Toronto FC had simply nothing to offer in return. Reggie Lambe (joined in 2012) was sent off in the 56th minute for a terrible late challenge on Saad, but it hardly changed the dynamic of the match. Whether O'Dea's sudden departure had an effect on team morale is impossible to know, but the glimpses of coherence in previous matches was gone. It was hard to imagine even a player of Forlan's aging calibre having a meaningful impact, should he ever actually arrive in Toronto.
There is often nothing more captivating than the "what might be" of player transfers, but they usually take place well before the first whistle of the season opening game. Toronto as ever are likely out of the playoffs again and trying to build for next season in the middle of this one, while Kansas City have kept the faith and yet again emerged as Supporters Shield favorites. RW